What hiring freezes do to your other workers

Published Jan 29, 2017


Washington - Federal

workers likely felt the chill on Monday after President Trump issued a hiring

freeze that would be "applied across the board in the executive

branch," an order that reinforced candidate Trump's frequent promises to

"drain the swamp" and reduce the federal workforce.

Yet the freeze

left open plenty of exceptions. Jobs that agency heads say have national

security or public safety responsibilities are exempt. So are military jobs,

though The Post's Lisa Rein reports that it's unclear whether that applies to

civilian defense roles or just uniformed personnel. The memo also says the

Office of Personnel Management may grant exemptions when they are

"otherwise necessary."

Such exemptions,

however, are just one reason human resources experts warn that hiring freezes

can be damaging to the morale of the people left to pick up the slack. If

hiring freezes lead to frustration and burnout, it's usually the top performers

who leave first. And limiting the number of people who are hired, they say, can

result in more risk aversion -- and therefore, less innovation -- while driving

stressed and overwhelmed workers to take shortcuts.

"If you've

got this problem of people being overworked, and they end up finding

workarounds, it can cost money in the long run," says Peter Cappelli, a

professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Trump, of

course, is the corporate president, a real estate magnate who touts his

business know-how and dealmaking chops. Yet few businesses use across-the-board

hiring freezes anymore, says Brian Kropp, who leads the human resources

practice at the consultancy CEB. "Most companies don't do it," he

says. "The world changes so quickly that you need people with particular

skill sets."

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Of course, most

businesses are looking to grow, and as a result, eventually expand headcount

after they get out of the rough spot that led them to suspend hiring. Trump,

meanwhile, has said he wants to reduce the size of the federal government

through attrition. If lower morale leads to even more departures, it could

serve his aims.

Yet until that

happens, managing the expectations and motivations of the people who remain

will be critical. Making a freeze across-the-board, but allowing for

exceptions, can be a recipe for bickering and infighting.

"If you start

making exceptions, it can create this huge sense of inequality -- why did they

get it through and mine didn't?" Kropp says. Former personnel chiefs told

The Post's Rein they would expect agency chiefs to interpret the exemptions


Best jump first

Meanwhile, when

companies put in hiring freezes that overload workers, it's typically the best

people who jump first.

"The people

who are most marketable are the first ones to go out the door," says Wayne

Cascio, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver's business school who

has studied downsizings and restructuring.

For Trump, of

course, "the best people," as he likes to say, probably aren't the

ones he wants to lose. And among the people who remain, there could be burnout

or frustration. Kropp says CEB's research shows that hiring freezes can cause a

productivity drag of 5 to 15 percent. And the effect could particularly hit

federal workers: While many see their jobs as having a sense of purpose through

public service, surveys show that government employees, on the whole, lag well

behind their private sector counterparts when it comes to employee engagement.

Still, others

say that if the hiring freeze is relatively short-lived, its effects may be

limited. Trump's order says the hiring stop is scheduled to last 90 days,

beyond which the Office of Management and Budget "shall recommend a

long-term plan to reduce the size of the Federal Government's workforce through

attrition." If individual workers don't feel it personally affect them or

their responsibilities, Cascio says, "in the short term there's probably

not going to be much of an impact" on morale.

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The effects

could be felt in other ways. When there's a hiring freeze on, people tend to

grow more wary of taking chances and work less creatively, Kropp says. "One

of the things we've seen occur a lot," he says, is when organizations

"start cutting budgets, the levels of innovation fell pretty dramatically.

Employees we surveyed said they weren't going to try something new because they

thought they were going to get punished."

And if workers

feel under stress and overwhelmed, they may provide slower service or find

workarounds to help them get things done. Indeed, an often cited 1982

Government Accountability Office study found that past hiring freezes actually

ended up costing more.

"It's not

just the hours of the work," Cappelli says. "It's the stress of doing

your own job and someone else's job you don't really want to do."


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